Presented here are some facts, photos, and illustrations pertaining to Custer's early life and career in the Civil War, when he first achieved fame as a dashing cavalry commander.
Custer's Early Life
George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839. His childhood ambition was to be a soldier. According to family stories, Custer's father, a member of a local militia group, would dress him in a small soldier's uniform at the age of four.
Custer's half-sister Lydia married and moved to Monroe, Michigan, and young "Autie," as Custer was known, was sent to live with her.
Determined to join the military, Custer secured an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point at the age of 18.
Custer was not a stellar student at West Point, and graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861. In ordinary times, his military career might not have flourished, but his class immediately entered the Civil War.
Graduating Into the Civil War
Custer's West Point class was graduated early and ordered to Washington, DC in June 1861. Typically, Custer was detained for a disciplinary infraction. With the intercession of friends, he was released, and sent to report to Washington in July 1861.
Custer was offered a chance to help train recruits, and reportedly said he'd rather report to a combat unit. So, as a new second lieutenant, he soon found himself at the First Battle of Bull Run, assigned to a cavalry unit.
The battle turned into a rout and Custer joined the long column of Union troops who retreated from the battlefield.
The following spring, a young Custer was photographed in Virginia. He is seated at left, cradling a cavalry saber and sporting impressive whiskers.
Custer as a Staff Officer
In early 1862, Custer served on the staff of General George McClellan, who led the Union Army into Virginia for the Peninsula Campaign.
At one point Custer was ordered to ascend in the basket of a tethered balloon with pioneering "aeronaut" Thaddeus Lowe to make observations of enemy positions. After some initial trepidation, Custer took to the daring practice and made many other ascents in the observation balloon.
In a photograph of Union staff officers taken in 1862, a 22-year-old Custer can be spotted in the left foreground, beside a dog.
The Photogenic Custer Emerges
During the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862 Custer found himself in front of the camera several times.
In this photograph, taken in Virginia, Custer sits beside a camp dog.
It has been said that Custer was the most photographed officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.
A Pose with a Rebel Prisoner
While in Virginia in 1862 Custer posed for this photograph by James Gibson, Custer poses with a captured Confederate, Lt. James B. Washington.
It's probable that the Confederate, rather than being incarcerated, had been put "on parole," meaning he was essentially free but had promised not to take up arms against the Union in the future.
Photographed After Antietam
In September 1862 Custer would be present at Antietam, though in a reserve unit which did not see action. In a photograph Alexander Gardner took of General McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, Custer can be spotted as a member of McClellan's staff.
It's interesting that Custer stood at the far right of the photograph. It appears that he did not want to blend in with McClellan's other staff officers, and he's essentially posing for his own portrait within the larger photograph.
A few months later, Custer returned for a time to Michigan, where he began courting his future wife, Elizabeth Bacon.
In early June 1863 Custer, assigned to a cavalry unit, showed particular bravery when confronting a Confederate force near Aldie, Virginia. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, Custer led a cavalry charge that put him, at one point, in the midst of the Confederate force. Legend has it that the enemy, seeing Custer's distinctive hat, took him for one of their own, and in the confusion he was able to spur his horse and escape.
As reward for his bravery, Custer was appointed a brigadier general, and given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. He was only 23 years old.
Custer was known for natty uniforms, and for having portraits taken of himself, but his flair for showmanship was matched by brave action on the battlefield.
The Custer Legend Is Born
Custer fought at Gettysburg, and showed initiative in capturing Confederates fleeing back to Virginia after the battle. At times Custer was described as "reckless," and he was known to lead men into dangerous situations to test their own courage.
Despite any flaws, Custer's skill as a cavalryman made him a noteworthy figure, and he appeared on the cover of the country's most popular magazine, Harper's Weekly on March 19, 1864.
A month earlier, on February 9, 1864, Custer had married Elizabeth Bacon. She was very devoted to him, and after his death she would keep his legend alive by writing about him.
Battlefield Exploits Captivate the Public
Custer's daring on the battlefield garnered continued press coverage in late 1864 and early 1865.
In late October 1864, in a battle called the Woodstock Races, Custer was sketched by the noted war artist Alfred Waud. In the pencil sketch, Custer is saluting the Confederate General Ramseur. Waud noted on the sketch that Custer had known the Confederate at West Point.
A Glorious Cavalry Raid
In early April 1865, as the Civil War was coming to its conclusion, Custer was involved in a cavalry raid that was written up in the New York Times. A headline declared, "Another Brilliant Affair by General Custer." The article described how Custer and the Third Cavalry Division captured three locomotives as well as artillery and many Confederate prisoners.
Battlefield artist Alfred Waud sketched Custer just prior to that action. To provide a title, Waud had written below his sketch, "April 6. Custer ready for his 3rd charge at Sailors Creek 1865."
On the back of the pencil sketch, Waud wrote, "Custer charged and charged again here capturing and destroying trains and making many prisoners. On the left are his guns engaging the enemy."
Custer's Role in the Confederate Surrender
On April 8, 1865, Alfred Waud sketched General Custer as he received a flag of truce from a Confederate officer. That first truce flag would lead to the parley that brought General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant together at Appomatox Courthouse for the Confederate surrender.
Custer's Uncertain Future at War's End
As the Civil War ended, George Armstrong Custer was a 25-year-old with the battlefield rank of general. As he posed for this formal portrait in 1865, he may well have been contemplating his future in a nation at peace.
Custer, like many other officers, would have his rank reduced after the end of the war. And his career in the Army would continue. He would, as a colonel, go on to command the 7th Cavalry on the western plains.
And in June 1876 Custer would become an American icon when he led an attack on a large Indian village near a river called the Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory.